Is asking your secretary to perform the act of fetching coffee, one of the modern office’s most mundane chores, an implied form of sexual harassment?
“Yes” is according to Tamara Klopfenstein of Levittown, NY.
After working for a few weeks, her (male) bosses asked her to get their coffee for them. She declined, and her manager e-mailed her, saying: “This is not open for debate. Please don’t make an easy task a big deal.” Klopfenstein felt that getting coffee “reinforced outdated gender stereotypes,” so the next day, when she was asked to get coffee again, she sent an e-mail that read: “I don’t expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day.” Nine minutes later, she was fired. Klopfenstein promptly sued the company for sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. The judge ruled: “The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act,” and dismissed the case. But Klopfenstein’s attorneys argue that “Some tasks are inherently more offensive to women.”
Ultimately, a federal court judge threw the case out due to lack of merit, which in my opinion, was the right call.
While a woman fetching coffee for her male bosses smacks of historical discrimination against women in the workplace, the Philadelphia Inquirer points out that,
To show discrimination, Klopfenstein would have had to be able to point to a male worker with a similar status who didn’t have to get coffee.
But the previous receptionists were all women and didn’t object to getting coffee for vice presidents Jay Shrager and Richard Blum, Jackson said.
Putting the harassment angle aside, the real issue at stake here is: can we refuse the parts of our jobs we don’t like?
Ms. Klopfenstein openly refused a directive from her bosses, to bring them coffee everyday at 3pm, something that all of her predecessors had willingly done in the past. Her bosses reiterated their request and explained that it was non-optional. Ms. Klopfenstein then refused to carry out an ‘essential’ (and I use this term loosely) job function and was fired.
I once watched a co-worker go through a similar battle. After several years of working at the company, she one day flat out refused to do half of her job duties—duties which were essential to the business. Management went out and hired a younger, cheaper replacement and a few months later let my co-worker go. Is it disappointing that an experienced employee was let go for a younger, cheaper version? Sure. But management hadn’t wanted to go out and hire someone new. By refusing to do her job, my co-worker forced management to make a choice, and can you really blame them for not wanting to be loyal to someone who “wasn’t a team player?”
I myself have had to do my fair share of grunt work outside the scope of my official job duties. One of the best bosses I ever had the pleasure to work for used to ask me to schedule department meetings for him. I wasn’t his assistant and I wasn’t the leader of the team, although I was in his department. Generally it was common practice for the leader of a meeting to schedule it themselves, so it felt weird that he would ask me to do something like that.
But did I do it willingly and without complaint? Of course.
For something as mundane as scheduling a meeting or fetching coffee, why start a war? Even if you don’t necessarily like doing boring tasks like copying, filing or delivering mail, someone has to do it and why risk ending up on your boss’ bad side over something so trivial? As Audrey Jackson, an administrative assistant at an engineering firm in Center City, put it:
“I would do anything for my boss except sleep with him, because he’s married,” she said.